If you watched Sunday night’s premiere of HBO’s new psychological thriller Sharp Objects, you’re perhaps still wrapping your brain around the dreamy disarray of each scene sequence, and possibly still cringing from mundane moments that end in bloodshed.
And if you haven't watched it—you should. Directed by Jean-Marc Vallee (Big Little Lies) and adapted from the eponymous novel by Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl), Sharp Objects follows an alcohol-abusing journalist who returns to her tiny hometown of Wind Gap, Missouri to investigate the serial murders of two teen girls.
Among the young actresses making a break in the ground-breaking series is 20-year-old Sydney Sweeney. She plays Alice and while you may only catch quick, sharp glimpses of her early on, her presence hovering over Adams’s Camille like a ghost, Alice’s painful story—and its relevance to Camille—unravels toward the third episode.
It’s big year for Sweeney: she made her debut as child bride Eden Spencer on season two of The Handmaid’s Tale, she’s acting on the big screen alongside Andrew Garfield in the upcoming noir Under the Silver Lake, and she just landed a role in HBO pilot Euphoria, with the wokest of young actresses, Zendaya.
Despite the recent success and the resonance of her perennial lilting laughter throughout our conversation, things weren’t always so simple for Sweeney. The Washington State native spent years convincing the world that her acting career would take off, and learned early in life that while kids can be cruel, adults can be crueler. How prescient this lesson turned out to be for Sweeney’s latest gig.
Tell me about where you’re from and how you got into acting.
I was born and raised in Spokane, Washington, and I always wanted to be an actress but my parents never really quite understood or knew anything about that industry. So it was like, “oh she wants to be a princess”—it was just, a fairy tale. School’s always been number one in my life. I was in soccer, baseball, every sport possible. And I kept wanting to put on all these plays and productions for my parents. When I was about 12 years old, there was a movie that come into town that I found out about and I wanted to audition. To convince my parents, I created a five year business plan presentation explaining what could happen if they let me audition for the movie, so they let did and I ended up getting it. Then everyone was like “go to L.A., have her try it out,” so my mom was like “ok i guess we’ll try out pilot season for three months” and I never ended up going back home!
And do you ever bring it back up to your parents now to be like, “hey guys remember the business plan? It worked out.”
No [laughs]. Well, recently I have been like thank god we did it! It definitely took a little longer than five years but I’m so glad that they supported me because I could not imagine still living in Spokane. As much as I love it, I enjoy travelling and experiencing as much of life as possible.
Because your career has started to accelerate so quickly in the last couple of years, how does it feel for you to go from being a regular person to getting recognized?
Honestly, I was at a Post Malone concert a couple of days ago and people were, like, coming to me inside and said “can I take a picture with you?” and I’m like, sure, but aren’t you guys here to see Post Malone? [laughs]
Do you have a crazy fan experience?
I was at dinner or something and someone came up to me, and they go “do you play Eden in The Handmaid’s Tale?” And I go “yes I do,” and they go “I hate your character,” and I’m like “thank you!” [laughs]. I get a lot of hate for my character.
It’s really cool that you have these roles on two shows based on groundbreaking books by female writers. Had you read Sharp Objects or The Handmaid’s Tale before coming to the shows?
I hadn’t. It was interesting. The Handmaid’s Tale, of course, I’d heard about because it was everywhere and, when I got the audition, I sat down to watch the pilot and I think I ended up watching all 10 episodes that single night. And then I got a call back the next day, and I bought book, and I ended up reading the book about two or three times. Then for Sharp Objects, I read the book when I got a call back for it as well. I was amazed that I hadn’t read those books before or that I didn’t read them in high school!
How did you prepare for the role of Alice?
Well, I build books for my characters. So it’s a book of, say, the first day she was born to the first page of the script. And it’s a timeline of memories and events, relationships: an interactive diary, journal, with pictures of her room and house where she grew up. My character struggled with life and she connects with Amy’s character on that level in the show, and I researched girls who have been hospitalized. I wanted to make sure it was as real as possible.
It’s a dark role—as are all of the roles in Sharp Objects. What did you do to decompress from the character, personally?
I’ve always made sure I separated myself from the character and had a very clear line of who Alice is and who I am as Sydney. So I never really struggle with getting out of my character. And music. Music helps a lot too.
Is there a song that you love to listen to after a long day?
It’s going to sound so weird, but there’s this one song that I always hum to myself or sing to myself that helps me get out of whatever scene, role or moment I’m in. I don’t know why this song stuck with me, but it’s called “Gone” and it was from Snow White and the Huntsman—the newest one with Kristen Stewart! It helps me change myself as I’m getting out of things. So—I don’t know why—but it’s the one I guess. I don’t know what meaning it has yet.
It’s crazy and fascinating what the pre-teen girls on the show are getting into with drugs and partying, and just their attitudes. It’s jarring, in a good way, to see young women represented in such an unabashed way on a TV show.
A lot of shows either glamorize teenage girls or they’re just one-note kind of characters. And I think that there’s so many different characters in Sharp Objects that have interesting depth that you can kind of see the real world.
There’s also the very realistic, unsavory way the parents of this tiny town talk shit about the girls and judge them for just growing up. Is Spokane a similarly small town?
It is! It’s definitely smaller than L.A. or Seattle. But I dealt with that growing up when I first starting going to L.A. I had really close friends that suddenly weren’t close anymore, because of the things that their parents would say at the dinner table. And it was that kind of thing, where the parents would influence what these 13-year-old kids would say or think. And they’d be like, “I can’t believe that Sydney’s parents are letting her go to the hell-ridden city.” Just their close-minded beliefs, and they would talk about it at the dinner table, and the kids would take it to school and that’s just how everything would go around. It got to a point that my school had to react and to talk to us about bullying because my phone—my parents took it away because of the things the kids were saying, the voicemails they were sending me—it got really hard. At such a young age, too. I didn’t even know why at the time, I was like “what am I doing wrong?”
I’m sorry you had to go through that. But now, in your present life, it’s kind of like artistic ammunition for the roles you’ve taken on.
Oh, 100 percent. The number of people I’ve gotten DM’s from or random text messages, those same people who are now like, “we’re so proud of you and we’ve supported you the whole way,” And I’m like, yeah, no you haven’t.
Well it’s good that there’s a new show around to depict how negative or close-minded adult perception affects young girls.
Are there any women that you look to for inspiration?
Angelina Jolie. She’s always been a huge role model for me—acting wise and how she is as a mother and activist. I’ve always wanted to follow in the footsteps of Angelina Jolie.
And you have a new project coming up with Zendaya that’s been announced?
Yes! A new HBO show. We just finished filming the pilot. It’s called Euphoria, and it’s another raw, gritty, real life look at growing up as a teenager, and the struggles with views on drugs, alcohol, relationships, love, sex, abuse. There’s so many different storylines for people to connect to. I really hope it gets picked up.
What advice would you give now to a young person who struggles with getting bullied?
Always reach out to a trusted adult, even if you don’t feel like you can. I wish that I would have talked to my mom sooner than I did, because she would’ve help me a lot faster than it was dealt with. Just know that it’s not you, it’s other people who don’t understand. There’s more out there in the world—but definitely talk to a trusted adult.
I hope your relationship with your mother is a lot better than your character’s.
Oh yeah, it is way better than Alice’s!